Esprit de corps. Shared purpose. Putting our heads together. Conventional wisdom suggests that group effort is essential to success in the workplace.
But when it comes to finding creative inspiration, too much face-to-face team time might actually put us at a disadvantage. Great minds may think alike, but do we really think better together?
Only under the right conditions, suggests Paul Paulus, a psychology professor at the University of Texas. Noting that unique ideas are often drowned out or withheld during group discussions, Paulus investigated the benefits of “brainwriting” 1—a process in which individuals share creative ideas in a written format. His findings: Written collaboration is more effective than a face-to-face exchange because individuals are able to fully reflect on ideas and incubate their own responses.
Why is inwardly focused reflection so essential to great ideas? According to Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, authors of Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, solitude activates our “imagination network 2”—the default neural state when attention isn’t focused on the outside world.
This network is what constructs meaning from experiences and stories, helps us reflect on thoughts and emotions, and imagines future scenarios. Most introverts—inwardly focused souls who recharge when alone—already appreciate the power of quiet contemplation to jumpstart creativity.
But even if you’re an externally focused, interaction-fueled extrovert, stepping into an introspective space can deepen your creative process. Whatever your Myers–Briggs personality type, here are a few ways to find your inner focus at work and tap into inspiration:
1. Find your happy place
As author Susan Cain suggests in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, we each have an ideal zone of stimulation. 3 The buzz of a busy coffee shop may provide extroverts with the perfect level of distraction needed to access unconscious ideas, while introverts typically fare better in peaceful, private spaces.
Unfortunately, the open-office plans favored by most modern workplaces were designed for frequent interaction and high levels of stimulation—the antithesis of creativity-enhancing solitude. Thanks to a recent backlash against these constant collaboration zones, some companies are rethinking their layouts, bringing in privacy pods and refuge rooms (Cain herself has created her own line of “Quiet Spaces 4” with design company Steelhouse).
If your workplace isn’t quite so forward thinking, take time to create your own interruption-proof thinking space. Physical barriers—a folding screen or wall of plants—can block visual distractions; headphones help drown out acoustic interruptions—and signal that you’re unavailable for chatting. Make sure to communicate the reasoning behind your isolationism to colleagues: You’re not avoiding them so much as seeking QT with your creative thoughts.
2. Manage your meetings
Ever since business guru Alex Osborn introduced “brainstorming” in the late 1940s, companies have placed their faith in these free-for-all group sessions. But research shows that individuals bring more ideas to the table 5 when they have time to think on their own, as opposed to only engaging in face-to-face brainstorms.
In response, some companies are instituting a technique that associate professor Loran Nordgren of the Kellogg School of Management calls “private data collection” 6—generating ideas solo and then using group time to evaluate their merits. If your workplace is still wedded to the whiteboard? Request the meeting agenda in advance and find quiet time to brainstorm alone.
Introverts who find that endless team meetings sap their creative juices can push for less exhausting alternatives: Shorter sessions, smaller groups, one-on-ones, standing meetings—or even eliminating a recurring meeting entirely. (Trust us, even the extroverts won’t complain.)
As for those ubiquitous after-work social events, Morra Aarons-Mele, author of Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Roadmap to Getting Out There, says the key to strategic networking 7 is to focus on your reason for being there. “If you don't have a goal, if you feel it's a waste of your time,” says Aarons-Mele, “then leave.”
3. Take control of your tech
Always on and never alone: The new, hyper-connected normal may excite some extroverts, but to introverts, it’s the stuff of horror movies.
No matter where you hide, energy-sucking others are just a message alert away. The paradox: Technology can actually encourage inward focus 8. Online communiques, which allow for deliberation and careful response, have replaced most of our off-the-cuff conversation.
Social media and sites like LinkedIn make it possible to network and keep in touch without navigating a cocktail party. Even creative collaboration can occur in the virtual realm—a space where no one needs to shout to be heard. The key to making tech an effective tool for contemplation, rather than a source of distraction: Rethinking your relationship with gadgets so that you’re the one in charge. Rather than passively accepting their intrusions, use voice mail, email, and IMs as virtual bouncers to keep interruptions at bay. Establish and stick to a firm schedule for checking devices and turn them off entirely whenever you’re in a restorative alone zone.
4. Incubate the unconscious
Ever wonder why inspiration so often appears while you’re in the shower or starring out the subway window? When creative challenges aren’t the focus of attention—essentially placed on the brain’s “back burner”—our imagination network kicks in and begins to form associations and ideas.
Even psychologist Carl Jung, in his early studies of introversion, recognized the power of unconscious thought 9” to “bring the inside to the outside as nothing else can.” It’s possible to maximize moments of quiet time by actively tapping into this powerful mechanism.
Rather than sitting in a room with a blank sheet of paper, research suggests that mild distraction facilitates creative incubation 10. Look for simple external tasks—doodling, knitting, walking, washing the dishes—to take your conscious mind off the challenge at hand.
As you learn to toggle back and forth between focused thought and unconscious ideation—and between moments of creativity-restoring solitude and externally focused interactions—you’ll be operating at your creative best, a great mind ready to contribute to the team.